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Monday, May 4, 2009
Updated: May 5, 3:28 PM ET
A-Rod's missing link: substance

By Howard Bryant
ESPN.com

The book is out.

Now what?

The advance billing for Selena Roberts' characterization of Alex Rodriguez, the subject of her biography -- "A-Rod: The Many Faces of Alex Rodriguez" -- has always come with one constant adjective: unflattering. And over 242 pages of text, the word is no exaggeration. Roberts' depiction of Rodriguez as self-obsessed, along with a similarly devastating impression of Rodriguez from the Joe Torre-Tom Verducci book "The Yankee Years," leaves little doubt that Rodriguez might be one of the superstars most intensely disliked by his peers since … well … Barry Bonds.

So much of the Rodriguez affair is mere sensation, an infatuation more with a nickname than a person. In both "A-Rod" and "The Yankee Years," a certain phenomenon is taking place beyond Rodriguez's fascination with himself and numerous strippers and madams: The players with whom he has shared clubhouses have little respect for him as a man. They laugh at his desire to be loved, at his flimsy attempts to seem distant, intellectual, mysterious, unaffected, when the truth is that Rodriguez's greatest crime is caring more about what the people around him think than caring about himself, about who he is as a person. His teammates ridicule him for his affair with Madonna, which apparently appealed to him mostly so he could tell the world a star of her caliber was interested in him. And within all this narcissism is weakness. They laugh at him because of it, and because his emotional frailty seems so pitifully obvious.

Alex Rodriguez
A-Rod's greatest shortcoming might be caring too much about what people think of him.

He is, in short, a cartoonish figure easily lampooned because he comes off as so absolutely unaware of how much his superficiality undermines his accomplishments. That is the most damning revelation of both books.

All of this might be titillating in a painfully ghoulish way, but what of the important subjects that make a person, and more importantly, a legacy? The book does not attempt to place Rodriguez in the pantheon, opting instead for the short-term fascination with the car wreck that is his persona.

Thus, major questions go unanswered, and that makes him no different from the other 24 guys in the clubhouse who shake their heads at whatever Rodriguez's latest ill-advised grab for affection/attention happens to be. His admitted steroid use is still, at this late date, no worse than the admitted steroid use of Jason Giambi, or, for that matter, Jose Canseco. Miguel Tejada, the former American League MVP, pleaded guilty to lying to Congresss about steroids.

A-Rod is, at best, only one of the greatest players of all time to be exposed as a steroid cheat. In that context, Roger Clemens is in a worse situation than Rodriguez is, because Clemens still faces the very real possibility of jail -- as does, remotely, Bonds.

The clean and the dirty still live in the same clubhouse. A few weeks ago, after Rodriguez's spectacular fall from grace when his performance-enhancing drug use was first revealed, Sports Illustrated ran a story with Albert Pujols on the cover under the headline "ALBERT PUJOLS HAS A MESSAGE: Don't Be Afraid to Believe in Me."

That story came with the same tired protestations: He says that he's clean and that it's a shame the steroid era judges players, innocent and guilty, as the same because no one knows the truth. But between the lines, it also showed Pujols to be just as culpable as the rest. At no point has he been a vocal advocate for drug testing. At no point did he challenge his union to protect his achievements. At no point has he been anything but another baseball player who hit his home runs and rode along with the indirect benefit of steroids: Big numbers make for bigger salaries. But now that he has replaced Rodriguez as the new, clean Anointed One, he's suddenly concerned that his accomplishments might be questioned. And in response, instead of speaking globally about drugs in baseball, all Pujols did was talk about himself. We've seen this act before.

Roberts' book makes Rodriguez look pathetic, but his eternal judgment -- in baseball, not Biblical, terms -- will come no sooner than 2024. He will play for at least 10 more seasons, then wait five more years for Hall of Fame enshrinement. By that time, a new generation of Hall of Fame voters -- who grew up with steroids in the game and feel very differently about drugs than their predecessors -- will determine whether Rodriguez is Hall-worthy. Today, he is not; but for this portion of the Rodriguez legacy, today does not matter.

Alex Rodriguez
Among players, A-Rod might not be any more popular by now than Barry Bonds was.

Unfortunately, the assertion that he used steroids in high school is completely believable, but that charge is not nailed down well enough in the book. In his now-famous interview with Peter Gammons, Rodriguez gave no credible reason for why he stopped using steroids -- or why he began, for that matter. It is especially unbelievable that he stopped using just as he arrived in New York, when he faced more pressure than at any previous moment in his professional career.

Assessing Rodriguez has always required perspective: He is too much of a moving target. The steroid era has claimed him as surely as it claimed his A-list brethren: Clemens, Bonds, Sosa, McGwire et al. But so far, he will simply endure bad press while he counts the more than half a billion dollars of guaranteed salary he has amassed in his career. Perhaps baseball's internal investigation will produce some greater consequence for him, but as of now, he's no different from the rest of the disgraced members of his generation.

His New York story remains, also, in its early chapters. He has lost substance -- although from listening to his teammates, it appears he might never have had it -- but Rodriguez has always been a great playoff performance and World Series title from redemption.

What Rodriguez seems to have lost most is the credibility that comes with being considered a person of significance, and it is curious that a player of his remarkable ability in a game so difficult to play could be so easily ridiculed. Professional respect is what Rodriguez has lost in the clubhouse. That a player of his obvious and outsize gifts would feel the need to use steroids or tip pitches to opposing players in the hopes they would do the same -- this is the mystery of Rodriguez. And that -- not the strippers, not the neediness -- is the worst indictment.

Ironically, professional respect seems to be what he craves the most, yet he does not understand that it is the one thing -- because of his immense talent -- he controls most easily. In his book, Torre wrote about Rodriguez's being more concerned with how he appeared on the field -- "what it looked like," Torre told me a month ago -- than with doing the actual job. It appears that Rodriguez doesn't understand that simply doing the work would return the rewards he seeks.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He is the author of "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.